"New era" in cross-strait ties with start of China-Taiwan landmark meeting

Taiwanese official Wang Yu-chi (L) who is in charge of the islands China policy shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Zhang Zhijun from the Taiwan Affairs office (R) at the start of their meeting in Nanjing on February 11, 2014 . China and Taiwan
Taiwanese official Wang Yu-chi (L) who is in charge of the islands China policy shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Zhang Zhijun from the Taiwan Affairs office (R) at the start of their meeting in Nanjing on February 11, 2014 . China and Taiwan are holding their first government-to-government meeting in more than six decades but analysts say renewed political ties between the former bitter rivals may still be a long way off. -- PHOTO: AFP

The relationship between China and Taiwan has entered "a new era", the island's top official overseeing mainland affairs declared at the first government-to-government meeting between the two sides.

Mr Wang Yu-chi, chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), on Tuesday told his mainland counterpart Zhang Zhijun, director of China's Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), that simply sitting across the table from each other and formally discussing affairs of mutual interest marks a "historic moment" for cross-strait ties, one "worth recording".

"Before today, it was difficult to imagine that we could have walked to such a stage," Mr Wang said. "My predecessors said that it would have been impossible in the past."

Underscoring Beijing's eagerness to move further along on the road on cross-strait relations, Mr Zhang stressed that the two sides must continue building on today's "hard-earned" propitious event.

"So long as the direction is right, the distance will not be too long."

Tracing the long and fraught history between the two sides after the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war to the Communists in 1949, Mr Zhang noted that the relationship - which weathered a missile crisis in the 1990s - had undergone much feng feng yu yu (winds and rains).

"We must be determined, never to let cross-strait ties suffer like this again. We must not make a U-turn on this," said Mr Zhang.

To tackle road blocks, he added, "we need more imagination".

Amid an unseasonably cold snap in Nanjing, the two men exchanged warm smiles and handshakes.

"Chairman Wang, welcome," Mr Zhang said as he greeted the MAC chief at the Nanjing Purple Palace Hotel.

It would have been a source of relief to the Taiwan delegation. How Mr Zhang addresses Mr Wang carries import in a relationship that has been balanced on carefully-calibrated protocol. That they respectively call each other "chairman" and "director" - which carries ministerial status on both sides - shows that they are "showing respect for the other's jurisdiction over their respective territories without touching any sovereignty-related issue", says Professor Chen I-Hsin of Tamkang University in Taiwan.

In his opening remarks, Mr Zhang, noting that the distance between Nanjing and Taipei is even shorter than that between Nanjing and Beijing, expressed the hope that ties will strengthen further. "I'm sure we will walk even closer in future," he said.

Mr Wang reciprocated by inviting Mr Zhang to visit Taiwan. "I hope to do so in the near future," said Mr Zhang.

After 10 minutes, the media were ushered out. Over the next two hours, the two officials would be discussing and hammering out issues.

Taiwan wants to partake in multi-lateral trade pacts - the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership - currently being negotiated. Word is that China will be willing to yield on this, so long as the remit for the discussions is confined to the trade sphere.

The two sides will also try to find agreement on the mutual establishment of representative offices across the Taiwan Strait. The obstacle is the issue of visitation rights for Taiwanese suspects jailed on the mainland.

Another agenda item is whether they can pave the way for a meeting between China's President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou at the Apec Leaders Summit in Beijing in November.

Mr Wang and Mr Zhang will hold respective press conferences at 5.30pm.

xueying@sph.com.sg